1990 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love
Bronx Community College, New York
By Evelyn L. Kent
Oscar Hijuelos takes care with those who populate his books. He brings them to life with vivid detail and deep emotion that resonates with readers. "I feel that I brought people into the world, in a sense," Hijuelos said about his characters in a June 2002 National Public Radio interview.
A good writer speaks to common human elements no matter the setting of the story. Hijuelos is a great writer -- and the 1990 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his novel "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love." The book was later made into a movie, "The Mambo Kings" staring Antonio Banderas and Armand Assante.
Hijuelos characters tend to be working class, something Hijuelos attributes to his background. "I grew up with people who didn't have access to the kind of information that made advancement easy. The main ethic was work. My father, for example, worked two jobs, always," Hijuelos said. "I have tried to venerate that work ethic in some of my books."
So, his characters work and they are unworldly – unaware of some avenues of opportunity. It is not, Hijuelos is clear about, something that they miss. You cannot miss what you do not know.
In this aspect, too, Hijuelos draws on personal experience. While a student he did not have enough money to take the almost-obligatory student trip to Europe. He remained in New York. "I didn't go to Europe," he said. "Part of the reason for that is that I didn't even know that Europe existed."
For Hijuelos the nonexistent trip is a metaphor -- education leads to the knowledge that an opportunity is available. "Education, no matter where it takes place, makes you aware of different paths that can be taken."
Hijuelos, a native and lifelong resident of New York, is the first Hispanic American winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. He was born in 1951 to Cuban immigrant parents, attended Bronx Community College and went on to earn bachelor's and master's degrees from City College of New York. In 1977 he went to work in an advertising agency while writing at night.
He has earned many honors for his writing including grants from the Ingram Merrill Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and The American Academy of Arts and Letters' Rome Prize, among others.
His first novel, "Our House in the Last World" was published in 1983 and was followed by five others: "The Mambo Kings," "The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien," "Empress of the Splendid Season," "Mr. Ives' Christmas" and "A Simple Habana Melody." They have been translated into 25 languages.
Until recently, Hijuelos had been working on a musical version of the "Mambo Kings." Despite a successful, brief run in San Francisco, the producers pulled out of it in New York. He is disappointed, but hopeful that it might be revived. Meanwhile, "I put that into the category of income affecting disappointment," he said.
Fans will be happy to know that he has just finished a "ridiculously long, complicated novel," he said. "It's kind of a historic novel set in the 19th century involving Mark Twain."